You Had to Be There: On Writing about Walking

I finally reached Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, which had been sitting somewhere in the middle of my to-read-pile for a few weeks. It’s quite a tome, after all, and I was in the mood for lighter reading. But I’m glad I persevered, for this is a book about walking. Given the fact that I like both reading and walking, it sounded like a match made in heaven. At least in theory.

But the reviews – not necessarily the critical ones, but the ones by non-professional readers – were mixed. I think some were expecting a more traditional walking guide, or a work of natural history, but MacFarlane doesn’t do traditional. I loved The Wild Places, so I was willing to take the plunge and see how far I’d get.

Halfway through, I was beginning to understand how MacFarlane’s trademark lyrical style might rub some readers the wrong way. I’ve also come across accusations that he’s privileged, a white male, a Cambridge University Fellow. While all of that is true, it’s hardly a reason not to like his work. By all means, read works by writers whose voices have historically been marginalized, but I’m no fan of the tendency to blame white male writers for being born that way. There are better ways to fight inequality.

Anyway, it’s hard to write about walking if you’re addressing people who are not used to walking themselves, or are not familiar with the landscape you’re crossing. I’ve never been to Palestine, for example, so I struggled to imagine what it looks like when reading this particular chapter of The Old Ways. MacFarlane focuses more on perception, emotion and philosophy than on description. I can understand why this might annoy some readers who just want to know whether the terrain is flat or hilly, wet or parched, green or grey.

But going out for a much-needed walk myself last week, after finishing the book, I realized how bloody difficult it is to convey the experience to others. You had to be there, so to speak. I for me like walking because of the sense of aloneness it offers, the opportunity to remove myself from the buzz of civilization and spend some time as part of nature, rather than having to regard nature as a backdrop to my existence by cultural necessity. How do you convey an experience that is not supposed to be about communication with people, as such?

I followed a path I’ve taken before, from the Norfolk seaside village of Cromer to nearby Sheringham. It took me across gentle hills with occasional views of the sea. I passed gnarly old trees, arable land, and many campsites, for this part of the country is by no means unspoilt wilderness. I quite liked being hidden by the trees that grew along the path, with only the birds and the squirrels knowing that I was there. I suspect I’m not the only person seeking this experience. The path was well-trodden and maintained, even though I’d been walking for a good half hour before I met my first fellow human being. He looked as startled as I felt.

I reached Incleborough Hill, a sudden steep hill sitting in the gently rolling landscape like an angry pimple. Finding a path not marked on my map I decided to follow it and found myself climbing the hill. The earth beneath my feet became mossy, velvet-like, and the trees gradually made way for prickly shrubbery. Upon reaching the top and a rather basic bench, I turned around. This is what I saw.

It’s a cliché to say that a picture conveys more than a thousand words but in this case I think it does, though being a writer I don’t like to admit it. I sat on the bench to catch my breath and warm my back in the sun before continuing along the path. I ended up in Sheringham and found my favourite coffee shop (this one) open. I bought a slice of plum frangipane tart and a white Americano, which I ate sitting on a concrete barrier facing the sea.

I think MacFarlane did a better job writing about walking than most of us would have done. It is a challenging subject because the activity is the antidote of writing itself, which usually involves sitting down and not moving around very much at all. Yes, I struggled to keep going when reading his book sometimes, but I don’t think books need to be easy to be enjoyable, even if I need something cheap and cheerful every once in a while, to cleanse my palate between more challenging readings. I say, give this book a go, and then go out for a walk yourself. See what you can find. And above all, enjoy the experience.

Image my own – View from Incleborough Hill

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